How Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” Video Changed Pop Culture Forever: Revisit the 13-Minute Short Film Directed by John Landis

Michael Jack­son’s Thriller, the album, had spent the pre­vi­ous year at the top of the charts before the John Lan­dis-direct­ed video for the title track debuted in 1983. Two pre­vi­ous videos, for mas­sive hits “Bil­lie Jean” and “Beat It,” kept him on con­stant rota­tion on the fledg­ling MTV and oth­er net­works. It seemed that the “naïve, preter­nat­u­ral­ly gift­ed 25-year-old” couldn’t get any more inter­na­tion­al­ly famous, but then, as Nan­cy Grif­fin writes at Van­i­ty Fair, “it was the ‘Thriller’ video that pushed Jack­son over the top, con­sol­i­dat­ing his posi­tion as the King of Pop.”

His naïveté was matched by a shrewd, cal­cu­lat­ing ambi­tion, and the sto­ry of the “Thriller” video high­lights both. After see­ing An Amer­i­can Were­wolf in Lon­don, he chose Lan­dis to make a video that would goose Thriller’s sales as they start­ed to fall. Lan­dis, the pro­fane, irrev­er­ent direc­tor of The Blues Broth­ers and Ani­mal House, may have seemed an odd choice for the whole­some pop star, who pref­aced his zom­bie spoof with a pious dis­claimer about his “strong per­son­al con­vic­tions.” (Short­ly before the video’s release, Jack­son, under pres­sure from the Jeho­vah’s Wit­ness­es, asked Lan­dis to destroy it.)

It turns out, how­ev­er, that when Jack­son called Lan­dis, he hadn’t seen any of the director’s oth­er films (and Lan­dis hadn’t heard the song). It was Lan­dis who sug­gest­ed that the video be turned into a 14-minute short film, a choice that set the bar high for the form ever since. As he told Billboard’s John Bran­ca on the video’s 35th anniver­sary, just days ago:

Music videos at that time were always just nee­dle drop. Some were pret­ty good, but most were not, and they were com­mer­cials. Michael’s such a huge star that I said, “Maybe I can bring back the the­atri­cal short.” I pitched him the idea, and he total­ly went for it. Michael was extreme­ly enthu­si­as­tic because he want­ed to make movies.

Before “Thriller” even aired, it was a high-pro­file event. “Mar­lon Bran­do, Fred Astaire, Rock Hud­son and Jack­ie Kennedy Onas­sis all turned up on set,” notes Phil Heb­bleth­waite, “and Eddie Mur­phy, Prince and Diana Ross were spot­ted at the pri­vate pre­mier.” After the video pre­miered on MTV at mid­night on Decem­ber 2nd, it sealed the network’s “rep­u­ta­tion as a new cul­tur­al force; dis­solved racial bar­ri­ers in the station’s treat­ment of music,” and “helped cre­ate a mar­ket for VHS rentals and sales.”

“Thriller” turned the mak­ing of music videos into a “prop­er indus­try,” says Bri­an Grant, the British direc­tor who made videos for Tina Turner’s “Pri­vate Dancer” and Whit­ney Houston’s “I Wan­na Dance with Some­body.” It “launched a dance craze,” Karen Bliss writes at Bill­board, and “a red-jack­et fash­ion favorite.” It won three MTV Awards, two Amer­i­can Music Awards, and a Gram­my. In 2009, it became the first music video induct­ed into the Library of Congress’s Nation­al Film Reg­istry, des­ig­nat­ed as a nation­al trea­sure.

But as we look back on unprece­dent­ed his­toric impact “Thriller” had on pop cul­ture, we must also look at its con­tin­ued impact in the present. It remains the most pop­u­lar music video of all time. “’Thriller’ is thriv­ing on YouTube,” Grif­fin writes. Celebri­ties and ordi­nary peo­ple, pro­fes­sion­al and ama­teur dance troops, Fil­ipino pris­on­ers and Nor­we­gian sol­diers, rou­tine­ly per­form its dance moves for the cam­era all over the world. An entire genre of how-to videos teach view­ers how to do the “Thriller” dance. This past Sep­tem­ber, it became the first music video released in IMAX 3D.

The video received the doc­u­men­tary treat­ment in Jer­ry Kramer’s Mak­ing Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which pre­miered at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val last year. Lan­dis tells Bran­ca one sto­ry that did not make it into Kramer’s movie. After Quin­cy Jones refused him per­mis­sion to remix the song, he and Jack­son walked into the stu­dio at night, took the tapes, dupli­cat­ed them and returned them. The song that appears in the video “is very dif­fer­ent than the record,” says Lan­dis. “I only used a third of the lyrics. It’s a 3‑minute song; in the film, it plays for 11 min­utes.” Jones and engi­neer Bruce Swe­di­en didn’t even notice, says the direc­tor, they were so enthralled with what they saw onscreen.

What con­tin­ues to dri­ve “Thriller’s” pop­u­lar­i­ty? The com­bi­na­tion of good clean fun and per­fect­ly-pitched camp horror—Vincent Price voiceover and all? The vir­tu­oso dance moves, zom­bie chore­og­ra­phy, and irre­sistibly sleek 80s fash­ions? All of the above, of course, and also some inde­fin­able sum of all these parts, a per­fect com­bi­na­tion of cin­e­mat­ic depth and shiny pop cul­ture sur­faces that set the bench­mark for the for­mat for three-and-a-half decades.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Michael Jack­son Wrote a Song: A Close Look at How the King of Pop Craft­ed “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

The Ori­gins of Michael Jackson’s Moon­walk: Vin­tage Footage of Cab Cal­loway, Sam­my Davis Jr., Fred Astaire & More

James Hill Plays Michael Jackson’s “Bil­lie Jean” on the Ukulele: Watch One Musi­cian Become a Com­plete Band

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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